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COLUMN

And On the Ninth Day Bush Said...

Jyoti Tibrewala

On August 9, President Bush declared that federal funding can only be used for stem cell research on existing stem cell lines, a decision which has been the object of much criticism.

But consider the sensitivity of the situation. The question is whether the federal government should fund research on cells that, when removed from the embryo, leave the embryo to die. Bush was well aware of the nature of the situation, and he knew he had to proceed with care.

And carefully he did proceed, placing limitations on research while preserving the freedom to explore the possibilities stem cells hold (not to mention, virtually the only choice he could make in his position while still saving face). Although religious leaders still managed to find fault with his resolution, their arguments tend to miss the point.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, said that the federal government is “[allowing] our nation’s research enterprise to cultivate a disrespect for human life.” This is entirely false. If this were true, the government would be encouraging the production of embryos for research purposes, or even offering financial compensation to couples to abort pregnancies so that cells could be isolated for research purposes. Or the President could have decided not to fund embryonic stem cell research at all. In that case, he would be encouraging (but not requiring) researchers to throw away any previously isolated cells. His decision to fund research on these cells shows that he respects the life that these cells would have helped bring about. While the individual organisms won’t be formed, the government will fund research on these cells, research that may give scientists a better understanding of human biology -- including, perhaps, an understanding of why the particular embryos did not develop further. The motions by the government to allow researchers to obtain this information shows that it holds human life high up on a pedestal.

The Bishop went further, taking on the task of ensuring “that our technical advances will serve rather than demean our very humanity.” The promise of stem cell research is that it will provide treatments for diseases.

Many diseases are characterized by malfunctions in cells or organs. As embryonic stem cells have the ability to differentiate into almost all of the cell types in the body, replacement cells and tissues could be grown to treat diseased individuals. Such a “factory” of human organs might be difficult for some to envision, but it would be a dream come true for someone needing a transplant.

Another argument that goes hand-in-hand with this is for the use of adult stem cells only. These are cells found in the adult body that have differentiated into different tissue types, but are capable of further developing into the various cells of a particular tissue. Blood stem cells, for example, can develop into red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Adult stem cells have already been used to develop therapeutic treatments for various diseases. However, no human adult stem cell has been shown in culture to convert from one tissue type to another. Embryonic stem cells are even less specialized, not even unique to a tissue type.

While embryonic stem cell research has not yet been used in treatments as adult stem cell research has, this lower degree of specialization is the extra promise the former group holds. At the very least, the research could help us better understand basic biology and the complex process the embryo undergoes in its development into a human being.

As a side note, Bishop Donald Wuerl wrote in his diocesan newspaper that “While [a stem cell] is a tiny speck, it nonetheless contains the elements out of which comes the fully developed human person.” Embryonic stem cells can give rise to almost all of the many types of cells found in the human body. However, an isolated stem cell, upon implantation in a woman’s uterus, will not develop into a fetus. This is because they lack the ability to give rise to the placenta and other supporting tissues necessary for development in the human uterus. Thus, stem cells do not contain everything needed for full development.

Embryonic stem cells present a wonderfully unique opportunity for researchers to learn more about medicine and the human body. President Bush’s decision to allow federal funding for existing cell lines keeps the power to continue or destroy human life out of the hands of scientists, while still allowing a great degree of exploration. This verdict will help researchers along the way to developing cures and treatments for a variety of diseases, and he should be praised, not admonished, for making this choice.